In my previous article I provided an outline of the wars Eritrea has been involved in since independence in 1993 – in addition to the border war with Ethiopia of 1998 – 2000.
These included conflicts in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen (twice), Somalia and Djibouti.
I have since been contacted by a colleague, who pointed out that this list does not include the Sudanese region of Darfur.
This article is an attempt to correct that omission.
In July 2007 five Darfur rebel groups joined together in Eritrea under the umbrella United Front for Liberation and Development (UFLD).
The new rebel group includes two SLA factions, the Revolutionary Democratic Front Forces, the National Movement for Reform and Development and Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance.
They swore to take the fight into Darfur, opposing the Sudanese government. “All the leadership council will move to the field in Darfur. The aim is to finish uniting all the armies into one group,” spokesman Abdel Aziz told reporters in the Eritrean capital.
Gerard Prunier suggests that the Darfur movements received support from two other Sudanese movements controlled by the Eritreans: “First, the Mutammar al-Beja (Beja Congress) which is, as its name indicates, based on the Beja group of tribes, mostly the Beni Amer sub-tribe. The other component is the Ussud al-Hurra (Free Lions) which is an emanation of the Rashaida Arab tribe (the Beja are not Arabs, they are a Cushitic group closely related to the Somali but with a completely distinct language called Tu-Bedawi).”
There is no suggestion that Eritrean troops were deployed to Darfur; rather that Eritrea was supporting the Darfurians in their fight with the Sudanese government.
But Alex de Waal and Julie Flint suggest in Darfur: A New History of a Long War (African Arguments) that the relationship between Asmara and Darfur can be traced back still further.
“The Sudan government accused Eritrea of organizing logistical support for the Darfurian rebels and it is likely that the first weapons sent to the SLA through the SPLA were Eritrean in origin. Eritrean policy was run by Yemane Gebreab, the second most powerful man in Asmara next to President Isseyas Afewerki. The political and security side was implemented by Abdella Jaber and the military logistics were organized by Major General Teklay Mangoos, the army chief of staff. The Eritreans were both consistent and opportunistic, and had been trying since 1995 to open a western front against Khartoum.
The SPLA was a willing partner in Eritrean designs, even after it signed the Machakos Protocol with the Sudan government on 20 July 2002 – a protocol which was the turning point in the negotiations to end the war in South Sudan. At Machakos, the government recognized the right of self-determination for the South. Sudanese, North and South, celebrated. But there was no ceasefire, and just a few weeks later the SPLA captured Torit, with substantial Eritrean military assistance. President Bashir, who had called Garang a patriot just a few days previously, was furious, and vowed to recapture Torit before resuming any peace talks. In the event, the Sudanese army retook Torit in October, and the talks resumed.”
In October 2007 the New York Times published an article by Jeffrey Gettleman, which threw more light on the subject.
“Eritrea is a little country with big ambitions. Since its independence in 1993, it has projected an aggressive foreign policy, shaping events in the Horn of Africa, though it has only five million people and is one of the poorest countries on earth.
In the past few months, Eritrea has opened its doors to rebel commanders from its neighbors, especially Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, which is part of the reason American officials are alarmed. The State Department says Eritrea has been shipping arms to Islamist fighters in Somalia, an allegation that the Eritrean government denies. At the same time, American diplomats have been quietly working with the Eritreans to push Darfur’s ever expanding galaxy of rebel groups to peace talks scheduled for the end of October in Libya.
The Eritreans have a decent track record, American officials say, when it comes to Sudan. Last year, the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, brokered a peace deal between the Sudanese government and rebels in a separate conflict in eastern Sudan that had ground on for 15 years and that cost thousands of lives.
African Union officials said Eritrea wields even more influence in Darfur, because of its longstanding contacts with the rebel groups there.
The Eritreans “have control over some of these movements,” said Sam Ibok, a senior adviser of the African Union. “And the Eritreans have played a constructive role.”
Leaders of Darfur rebel groups are spread out among a number of countries, including Chad, Libya and Egypt, as well as within Darfur itself. More than half a dozen Darfur rebel groups have hung out a shingle in Asmara. And in some cases, like the United Front for Liberation and Development, which claims to have more than 10,000 fighters in Darfur, the Eritrean government pays the rent. The rebels say Eritrea is a good base of operations because it is safe; it has an international airport and reliable phone lines; and various rebel leaders can meet anytime, day or night, in one of the city’s countless sidewalk cafes and talk shop over a cup of espresso — something they definitely could not do in Darfur itself.
“This has been an important front for Darfur for years,” Mr. Khamis said, strolling down a sunny street in Asmara. “We like it here.”
The Sudanese authorities accused President Isaias of backing the Darfur rebels. The Sudanese officially complained to the UN Security Council about Eritrea’s “instigation of, support for and financing of the outlaws in the Darfur region,” according to the official ‘Sudan News Agency’. “Eritrea contacted the outlaws, set up training camps for them and supported them with arms,” Sudan’s Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail was quoted as saying.
But from Eritrea’s point of view the Darfur rebels were always only a means to an end. The Darfurians were used to put pressure on Sudan to fall into line with Eritrea’s political agenda, and particularly to back Eritrea in its grinding conflict with Ethiopia. Once Asmara and Khartoum had mended fences, support for the Darfurians decreased. Yet as late as 2009 the Darfur groups were still reported to be operating from Asmara.